Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Loneliness of a different kind

Recently, during a closer introspection of life, I realized how lonely things have become. Although Seattle was in a different country and I was living away from family for the first time, there was no dearth of like-minded friends or interesting activities to pursue. I took writing courses, did salsa, acted in plays (or watched them), danced, and made friends from diverse backgrounds (professors, writers, software engineers, social activists, etc.). My social life during my PhD in Virginia was quite active too. Having two roommates who spoke two different languages made a big difference, and they brought in their own set of friends, food, and fun. Then, I had friends from other groups- Bengali friends, gym friends, department friends, and east coast friends. Due to the proximity of several big cities on the east coast, my social life was not restricted to Virginia. I would be attending Durga Puja events in NY/NJ, Diwali events in Washington DC, driving to the national parks and the beaches on the Atlantic, and there was hardly a dull moment. My car made a big difference in my life too, now that I was quite comfortable driving longer distances (sometimes as far as Rochester, Cincinnati, and Connecticut).

My social life took a kamikaze turn in Nebraska. Suddenly, my real-time friends were reduced to a list of names on Skype. I realized that as students, it is much easier to make new friends. As a postdoc at a new university, I no longer felt comfortable with the student crowd (although they tried, and I tried too). I no longer identified with their life issues (not being able to drive, not passing the qualifiers, not graduating on time). On the other hand, most of the postdocs had families, and I did not fit into that group either. I remember someone trying to introduce me to a group that met for satsang and bhajans and vegetarian meals, although that was really not my idea of socializing. I never went, and they never talked to me again.

Married people came with their own stories (being a trailing spouse, the child never eating or sleeping enough, the mortgage being too high, the car insurance too steep, and the immigration policies too unforgiving, group politics among the Bengalis, etc.). I attended some social events, but did not feel engaged enough. The faces were different, but the problems were all the same. Being in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska never allowed me enough opportunities to escape somewhere. The weather was extreme, the Colorado mountains too far, the beaches nowhere to be seen, and there was only so much one could drive in the middle of the cornfields. That was the first time I actually began to realize what loneliness is. I sometimes went to the local Bengali association, attending the pujas and Diwali amid a group I clearly did not fit into. I kept myself busy by taking pictures at these events, my way of contributing socially. It was not that there was a dearth of people I knew. It’s just that the sample size of “people like me” had significantly decreased.  

This brought in a very important realization. We are perhaps subconsciously programmed to hang out with people “like us” unless we make a deliberate attempt not to do so. Bengalis hang out with the Bengalis, married couples hang out with other married couples, and people in academia hang out with other people in academia. This is perhaps because it gives us a lot of common topics to talk about. I mean, what would an Indian postdoc talk to a Russian chef? Ever seen how totally incompatible adults hang out with one another, and gladly do so because they have children who are playmates? Thankfully, my diversions and hobbies kept me engaged. I read, watched foreign language films, wrote, took pictures, made travel plans, and so on. However, the loneliness persisted.

Things in Germany are far worse. Language and culture are huge barriers, but what creates a greater divide is my failure to hang out with the Indians here, just because we share a common cultural background, and perhaps nothing more. I felt much more comfortable with the few Americans I met in Germany. On the other hand, I made some good Korean friends. I had more in common with them, because they are single, researchers, people who have traveled the world, and provided me a first-hand perspective of an interesting life. We were experiencing a shared struggle of learning the German language, and getting used to the culture. In a way, we were all the same: foreigners. Whenever I needed company for a walk, or wanted to visit a local café, they were usually there. However, some of them are leaving, without promises of returning anytime soon.  

Things are perhaps not as unhappy as I am portraying. Most days, I am really happy reading a book while watching the ships, and not have anyone interrupt my thoughts. However, the human connection is definitely missing from my life now. There are still enough people I see on a regular basis. However, I don’t have much common with them anymore.

Recently, when an old school friend contacted me after many years, I was surprised that I felt a mixture of happiness and dread. For I knew that somewhere during the conversation, she would either bring up things like her kid not eating and sleeping and pooping enough, or ask me why I am not joining the bandwagon of married people. She would not talk about learning new statistical tools, trying something new on Coursera, or finding some cool solution to a scientific problem. However, I am still expected to be enthusiastic about keeping in touch, just because we were once together in the ninth and tenth grade (a time when we had everything in common).

You see, these people are not bad people, but just different people. Not diverse, but different. I now realize why people procreate (other than the usual reasons about human instincts and the urge to spread your genes). It keeps people busy with regular, organized activities centered around care-giving duties (cooking, cleaning, playing, teaching, socializing); sometimes even chores, but engaging activities nevertheless. Being the caregiver for two children, my mom was really busy at my age. She was sending us to school, supervising our homework, managing the home, caring for the in-laws, adjusting with my dad’s erratic work schedules, and being in charge of the family single-handedly. I, on the other hand, have no such roles to play. My major responsibilities include feeding myself, taking care of my health, making sure that I show up at work on time, meet deadlines, keep the house clean, and that’s about it. Sometimes, my biggest dilemma for the day is no, not how to educate my children better, but whether to wear a red shirt or a grey shirt at work. No one will be hungry or waiting for me at home if I am late. In fact no one will even know that I am late.  

Naturally, I dread my weekends. Work gives me a serious engagement, a sense of accomplishment, and an avenue of socializing (precisely why I don’t like working from home). But the weekends are hard. Sometimes when I come back to work on Mondays, I realize that I am croaking, because my vocal cords have gathered cobwebs over the weekend with no one to talk to. While people look forward to the weekends, thanking God that it’s Friday and what not, I really wonder how I will kill time. Because engagement requires planning, and planning requires energy and enthusiasm. So I take the easier way out, either watching back-to-back movies until my back hurts, or working some more. Sometimes, I try the selfish way out, by Skyping with my family to relieve me of my loneliness. However, they are even busier, and nowhere to be seen in the weekends. They are often traveling, attending weddings, socializing, trying out the food at new restaurants, catching up with the latest movies in the theaters, and doing a gazillion things on the weekend. Precisely the kind of life I would like to live in Germany.

A couple of realizations before I end this reflective post that turned out to be more of a rant. With age, my acquaintances have increased (800 friends on FB, and counting), but my friends have decreased. In my twenties, I hung out in big groups, engaging in planned activities and small talk. Now, I want to spend more individual time with a smaller group of people (the smaller, the better). I don’t want to make small talk in big groups, but big talks in small groups. Also, the people I identified with at some point (because they were school buddies or college mates), I no longer have anything in common with them. They have been replaced by a newer set of friends, definitely smaller in number (and getting smaller every year). A handful of close friends have passed, making me realize that death is no longer something that happens to the older people, people my parents or grandparents knew. Even people my age can die (and why not? I think that I am almost done with half my life).  Most importantly, I am realizing that it is so important to have a critical mass of friends you can meet on a regular basis at any given point of time. Because that is what helps the extroverts get more extroverted, and the introverts like me to be sufficiently engaged. Instead, that critical mass of friends is almost going to hit single digit numbers for me, as a result of which, the introvert in me is getting more introverted, retreating into a shell. They even have a cool term for this. It is called the Matthew effect.

The other interesting thought is understanding whether your interests earn you friends, or whether your friends earn you interests. I have done both in the past. For example, I have made friends because of my interests (acting in plays, dancing, learning music). However, I have also pursued new interests (like watching Thai horror movies or learning Korean) because of friends. I guess one way out of this ordeal would be to keep doing the things I love doing (joining a dance group, doing Zumba, traveling, and so on), and hoping that new friendships develop organically this way. Or maybe I should just move to Seattle. That is one place where I will never have to worry about not having enough friends, or not having enough things to do in the weekends.

P.S.: I shudder to think how much more I will be ranting in my fifties.